What Makes Blue Door Press Special

I would say that I am something of a veteran when it comes to attending book launches. I have seen the whole gamut: I have snuck into some “media celeb” book launches and seen the likes of Howard Marks, Chris Evans and Plan B. at various populous shing-dings; I’ve briefly clinked glasses with literary luminaries such as Martin Amis and Margaret Atwood in well-thronged, well-upholstered rooms; I’ve been more important at more low-key events when friends and colleagues have given readings and touted their work; and I’ve been largely nerve-wracked when launching some of my own books. I can still remember losing my book launch virginity in 2004, when I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out of Here was first published. That was very exciting because lots of people came along, attracted by the title and the publicity that the book enjoyed: it was serialised in The Observer and I appeared on quite a few TV and radio shows talking about it. I remember drinking too much wine at the launch and not knowing quite what to make of it all. I was even snogged by an admirer!

So, I have seen a few. Nevertheless, the launch of Blue Door Press and two new novels by Pamela Johnson and Jane Kirwan respectively, founders of the press, was very special to me. Unique even. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. There was a very nice ambiance about the launch, which was in a chic venue in Seven Dials, Covent Garden; it really filled up as the evening wore on and even the heat of the day and all those bodies could not dampen people’s enthusiasm and joy, which was very palpable.

However, I have been to events which have had similarly positive vibes. No, it wasn’t quite that which made it so inimitable. It was only after the speeches that I began to realise what made the moment so singular. Then, it hit me like a novel falling on my head from a high shelf: this was the very first time I had felt that authors were really taking control of their own literary destinies. In all the other launches I’ve been to, there was always the sense that the authors needed to bow down before the publishers; tug their forelocks and doff their caps at the “big boys” such as Penguin/Random House etc, and express extreme gratitude at the smaller outfits. This sense of neediness for a publisher was even the case when I’ve been to events where self-published books have been presented; you always got the sense that actually the authors were hoping that one day a “proper” publisher might take them on.

Not so with Pam and Jane. They have done something different entirely in my view. They’ve set up a writers’ collective which has the rigour and high standards of a “traditional” mainstream publisher, but has the autonomy of a self-publishing outfit. It is worth watching the speeches to see and feel this point conveyed:

I spoke to one of the revellers at the launch who made these points in this video:

Above all, BDP is about publishing high quality, readable fiction. I’ve already written rave reviews of both books on Amazon: my review of PJ’s brilliant Taking in Water is here, and JK’s moving Don’t Mention Her is here. These are both writers who are at once literary and accessible. The two things don’t always go hand-in-hand. In a sense, Pam and Jane’s work are the press’s manifesto; they lay out the standards by which other work must be judged. Standards which many people feel are very high. Here are some fans talking about their work:

As you may have noticed at the end of the first video on this blog, I am delighted to have my new novel Who Do You Love accepted by BDP. Pam has proved a brilliant editor and has given me some work to do on the current manuscript, but all being well I hope to publish the novel in late January next year. More on my novel at another time I hope!

Francis Gilbert



Don’t Mention the NHS

Northampton General Hospital

“To be a good doctor, one needs to be involved with patients (capable of empathy and humanity); yet to remain objective and survive emotionally, one needs to be detached from their pain and suffering.” Support 4 doctors 2016

Don’t Mention Her follows the story of Connie, a woman doctor. The idea for the novel started with her husband, Liam, walking through a gate, in 1963, into a convent garden in the middle of England. I knew the mood of that scene – he was grief-stricken, was in mourning and couldn’t express it. I wanted to know why, and what happened to that family over the next 50 years. The novel was inevitably going to describe quite drastic changes, not only for Connie and Liam, and for their Catholic family, but more crucially in the practice of medicine.

None of it is actually true, no five-year-old died, no characters are based on people I knew. I had no family history to call on, apart from parents who were doctors in Northampton. But I did have a sense as a child of a deadening, of loss and of secrets. Looking at Don’t Mention Her with its fictional characters I realise that despite all the invention it is full of something that is very familiar, something that was around the house in my childhood and un-named.

It might have been a fear of failure, of blame, or anxiety about either. It might have been the much more present threat then of death. My parents both started in practice before regular use of penicillin, when TB was a constant threat, before vaccination for polio.

In the fifties the ‘family doctor’, or GP, worked alone or with only a few others; there was no practice nurse, there were no hospices, more mothers delivered their babies at home. I would hear the phrase when I temped for the receptionist: ‘I’m under Dr X, we all are.’ Dr X had looked after that family from birth to death, day and night, with the occasional trip by the patient to the General Hospital for surgery.

In The Guardian recently the report of a GP’s suicide mentioned not just that she was being treated for bi-polar disorder but her ‘work-related stress’: she was dealing with the ‘death of a patient’. And, interestingly, she’d had to retire because a patient complained about her blog mentioning her disorder.

As children, there were no conversations at meals about patients. And it wasn’t just silence about work, both my parents’ lives had been marked by siblings dying and had said nothing. My father rarely spoke. My mother had switched to working full-time in public health and was more communicative but she was always rushing. Occasionally she’d talk about polio, pleased that the sugar lump removed the need for an injection, of her experience when pregnant of taking chest xrays for TB; of the prevalence of rickets before the government started handing out Vitamin D in orange juice.

District hospital, Swinford, Mayo; formerly the Fever Hospital, formerly the front of the workhouse.
District Hospital Swinford, Mayo, formerly the Fever Hospital, formely the front of the Workhouse.

But on some things she was less forthcoming: she came from a part of Ireland that within her great-grandparent’s memory, within their stories, was fatally damaged by years of famine. She was angry, and at the same time had no desire to go back to Mayo. There had been too much death, mostly from TB, even within her memory.

But probably it was my father’s silence that marked us most profoundly. His first wife died in childbirth as did the baby. It was their second child; he was left with a toddler aged two. And none of this was ever mentioned. We didn’t know that our oldest sister had a different mother, and neither did she until she was twelve. Years after he died, and shortly before her own death, my mother talked about it briefly. She believed that my father had felt responsible. But he’d refused to say a word.

Various relatives lived with us while they were assistants in the practice. I remember eavesdropping on a cousin taking a phone call about some tests; he reported the results to my mother – the patient was a girl I’d been friendly with since we were four. I could tell it was serious from their muted voices and expressions. Kathleen was an only child, adored by her Catholic parents; soon after her funeral, her parents split up.

Medicine has changed, Clare Gerada in the BMJ describes the new stresses on medical staff: ‘The NHS is exposed daily to negative stories in the media. Its staff are accused of being lazy, cruel, and uncaring, and the service is blamed for failing to meet necessary standards. Doctors, nurses, and managers are seen as villains and are berated by journalists….. who overlook the fact that the NHS still tops the list of what makes the public feel proud about being British.’

Well, the NHS, as we knew it, is disappearing into Virgin Care etc; they allegedly don’t even pay taxes on their profits. Soon the health service might no longer be part of our heritage. And no one mentions it.

Jane Kirwan




Inventing Art For Taking In Water

 Olafur Eliasson

Weather makes a potent subject for artists, from Turner’s watercolours to the work of conceptual artists. The Weather Project, Olafur Eliasson’s installation in Tate Modern’s turbine hall, attracted a record two million visitors in 2003/4.

Given the starting point for Taking In Water I knew weather had to feature in the artwork that my characters, Luc and Layla, would make together. In imagining their work, I wanted to avoid anything over-Romantic. Since the post-war break from traditional painting and sculpture is something I’ve explored in non-fiction writing and in curating, I decided to go back to the moment when new ways of working as an artist were beginning to emerge.

For many artists in the Sixties mass-media became their subject matter. With the Luc character I wanted someone who was paying attention to both directions – the natural world and the manufactured.

It was around then that Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight changed our view of the world; Earth was seen for the first time as a planet orbiting in space, mainly composed of water. Gagarin’s mission contains both senses of the sublime – to be in awe of nature and the awesomeness of space technology. Luc, I figured, would want to explore the conflicted relationships between the natural world, technology and the human body at a conceptual level. Lydia, on the other hand, would live out the effects of a personal encounter with natural forces that had overwhelmed her. Her understanding would be much deeper. Lydia, as Layla, provided the emotional context for the work.

Finding a form for the book that linked the 1960s with 2002, when the novel is set, came from work I have done interviewing artists for the Artists’ Lives project in the British Library’s National Sound Archive.

Going back to the Sixties made sense for other reasons. Given Lydia’s tragedy – having lost her family in the flood of 1953 – it was very likely that her teenage years in the 1960s would be turbulent. And, the Sixties was a decade in which visual artists became celebrities. I also wanted to look at fame as a kind of deluge that swamped Lydia for a second time. What had it been like for the two artists to suddenly find they were a media spectacle?

And finally, the exciting thing about inventing a work of art for fiction is that, though you need to enable the reader to envisage the artwork you don’t have to make the piece.